LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
On a weekend in April, seven visionaries of the aviation and aerospace world gather to hash out the future of flight. They are mostly engineers by profession or temperament, and meet the call to prognosticate carefully, like pilots on full instrument approach. After all, who among these seven, had they been alive in 1903, would have predicted the
helicopter, the stealth bomber,
the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the supersonic airliner, the 820-passenger jet, the 127,900-pound-thrust turbofan engine or the low-cost launch platform for suborbital flight—most of which were worked on, and some of which were invented, by members of this very group? But the call to prognosticate will prove irresistible. These may be feet-on-the-ground men, but they love to fly, and to build machines that fly.
Since Kitty Hawk, much that was predicted
in this magazine in hundreds of cover
stories and thousands of articles about aviation has come true, yet some
enduring dreams of flight remain
unrealized: Air cars do not flit about our suburbs. Passengers cannot routinely buy their way onto supersonic or space-bound machines. The airline system, once seemingly boundless, is in disarray and threatened by terrorism. So there
is much to discuss: Personal and space flight, yes, along with hypersonic
scramjets, flying FedEx robots, synthetic vision, wing morphing and an airport that catches and launches small aircraft like a shortstop in a World Series game.
The environmentalist: Paul MacCready, founder of AeroVironment, is one of the most celebrated designers
of fuel-efficient air and ground vehicles (including human- and solar-powered ones) and a pioneer in unmanned aviation. Tirelessly ekes more from less. MacCready appeared in Popular Science 25 years ago, running shirtless alongside his Gossamer Albatross, the pedal-powered airplane that a few months later crossed the English Channel.
The fighter: Boeing's George Muellner is a 31-year Air Force veteran and former test pilot who led the program that developed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He recently headed Boeing's top-secret Phantom Works research division and now directs Boeing's work for the Air Force.
The propulsion man: Mike Benzakein, general manager of advanced engineering at GE Aircraft Engines, helped design the big, quiet GE90 for the Boeing 777. His mandate to look beyond turbine technology will help shape the replacement of the jet engine.
The airliner advocate: Englishman Adam Brown is a veteran of Airbus since before it was Airbus, and his market predictions were crucial to the multinational European conglomerate's gamble on the A380 superjumbo project.
The radical engineer: Burt Rutan, perhaps the most acclaimed postwar aircraft designer of all, built the round-the-world-on-a-single-tank-of-gas Voyager craft and is currently in the spotlight for his drive to prove the viability of low-cost suborbital flight. His canard-wing VariEze made the cover of Popular Science in 1978; his SpaceShipOne did the same this July.
The systems man: Mark Moore of NASA is a leader in that agency's push to develop an innovative, high-tech air-taxi-based aviation system to liberate regional travelers from the clutches of the hub-and-spoke big-jet infrastructure.
The impresario: Peter Diamandis is co-founder of Space Adventures and the International Space University. He has an aerospace engineering degree from MIT and a medical degree from Harvard. Founder of the $10 million international suborbital-flight competition called X Prize, in which Burt Rutan is merely the most famous contender.
The real conversation gets under way—after brief formal presentations and a lot of throat clearing and grousing about the current state of the airline industry—when Burt Rutan pulls a Burt Rutan: He advances an idea as odd-sounding as many of his aircraft have been odd-looking. According to Rutan, the Internet's most prolific industry (and we don't mean G-rated eBay) will develop the technology to enable radical change in the demand for, and consequently the very nature of, commercial aviation.
Rutan believes we're seeing the first signs of the dismantling of the American road-warrior business culture: "Don't people realize that business travel is almost defeated already? In my company, I've lost half the demand for business travel just in the last three or four years, and I am very much looking forward to not having to do any at all."
The idea is that much commercial travel will become irrelevant thanks to high-fidelity virtual reality networks. "In only 20 years, we're going to have systems where we can 'sit down' with someone and it will be indistinguishable from being there," Rutan continues. "There is such an enormous demand to do that, to get rid of this quagmire of gridlock—and these enormous airplanes aren't going to solve the problem of getting to the airport. You might ask where the money is going to come from to make this technology flourish. It'll come from the porn industry.
"The ability to go out and buy an orgasm with a beautiful woman with no risk of disease will also create the kinds of things that you will need to truly make it so that
you don't have to take a business trip—the feel of that handshake, all the senses you have of knowing that you are there. Phenomenal amounts of money will be dumped into phenomenally good virtual reality, so we won't have to go to the damn airport in the first place."
Rutan's idea elicits various reactions, to say the least. Setting aside whether VR that good can be developed, Boeing's Muellner sees the notion of technology reducing the demand for travel as culturally myopic.
"While right now business travel is down, I don't think it's going to stay down. It and leisure travel will increase because the vast majority of the world has never been on an airplane! They're in emerging economies, and while virtual connectivity allows you to do a lot of things, personal contact is still what a great part of the world depends upon for establishing relationships that lead to long-term success. People really want to see their relatives, not watch them on TV. They want to see the Pyramids, snorkel with the rays—not watch it on television, or even feel it."
Rutan's VR argument highlights a fundamental prediction about the future of aviation: Computer technology has barely begun to transform the human-machine interface. This includes the operation of airplanes themselves. Cockpit controls will become intuitive, immersive VR interfaces, guiding pilots along crystal-clear highways in the sky even in zero visibility. Such technology will be critical if the air taxi and UAV systems predicted by Moore, MacCready and Muellner are to fly. Despite the processing power found in state-of-the-art fighters like the F/A-22, the age of the thinking flying machine has not even dawned. It will dawn, and that will open the control of aircraft to far more people than ever before—while some, in Rutan's vision, simply stay home.
AIR TAXI vs. SUPERLINER
Air travel will of course survive. But there are huge questions: Big airplanes or small? A centralized system dominated by mega-airlines (pecked to pieces by low-cost start-ups like JetBlue) or a decentralized, distributed system? Supersonic, hypersonic, VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) or high-performance air taxis? The future probably holds all of these, but consider how interesting a devolution of the airline system would be.
Today's hub-and-spoke network funnels travelers to smaller cities by bouncing them through hub airports near the big metropolises. Everyone except business titans, general-aviation enthusiasts and salespeople bound for clients in the sticks flies on aircraft that are, basically, big or bigger. As travel time to bloated airports grows longer—and it will grow longer unless there's a massive shift to public transit—the system will become more painful, especially when recession-dampened passenger volume recovers. Airport security challenges will continue to frustrate, and that adds up to a perpetual mess.
NASA's aviation division and other air taxi enthusiasts say there is: They predict a network of small aircraft
that fly into vastly underused regional airports and that are
connected to a next-generation traffic-control system. Moore also argues that a small-aircraft network would be more hardened against catastrophic 9/11-style attacks. "Catastrophic events always occur. When they do, nature selects the most robust creature to fill the void that has been created. Right now, the solution is a series of 30 airports, with over 90 percent of the travel going through those 30 airports. Is that robust enough to survive the test of time?"
Air taxis will save the world, in this vision.
Brown of Airbus profoundly disagrees: Efficiency is on the side of airlines flying big airplanes, and the markets that will determine the future lie overseas anyway. Brown, whose company's A380 will soon fly up to 820 passengers to airports that have to be modified to handle the load, believes that airplanes and aviation are on a steady growth curve. "The fact is that on long-range trips, the cheapest way to fly is through a centralized system. So do you prefer to have maybe one expensive flight a week, or would you prefer to have a choice of several cheap flights every day, even though it involves a stop [at a hub]?"
Brown's vision therefore includes stretched versions of the A380 capable of carrying well over 1,000 passengers, with the smallest aircraft in the system carrying no fewer than 200. Most of the travel, Brown's studies show, will take place within countries with burgeoning economies and populations, China in particular. The future of aviation is mammoth and global.
YOUR AIRPLANE WILL HAVE HORSE SENSE
How big a bite next-generation small aircraft will take out of the airline system is impossible to know, but technology will radically transform the pilot and passenger experience. Rutan describes aircraft with user-friendly cockpits for pilots who find themselves in foul weather or tricky situations. "I don't mean anything like the air traffic control system that we have. We need synthetic vision to see through the clouds. We need intuitive collision avoidance and intuitive navigation, and by 'intuitive' I mean we are alerted by a sound that comes from the direction of the threat, not [something you see] on a screen down here on the instrument panel. The information in the noise signature can tell you all kinds of things about what that threat is. It should tell you what to do to avoid the problem. And, of course, if you're asleep or drunk or don't do it, the airplane should take over and miss it anyway."
An air taxi system, which would put far more aircraft into the sky than ever before, will require a drastic cut in the number of crashes per flight that now occur in general aviation. Only computer power can deliver this. "If you look at accidents," GE's Benzakein says, "85 percent of them are caused by pilots. It's human error. And if technology comes in to rectify this, I think that's going to make a major impact."
The prospect of an airplane as easy to fly as a videogame is to play is abhorrent to many general-aviation pilots, who form a club born of the mystique and challenges of piloting small aircraft. Yet the majority on the panel agree that there is little about flying that will be beyond the power of coming computer technology: The airplane will either fly itself, or allow a pilot of limited training to basically "drive" it from Point A to Point B.
"What you will see with these small aircraft is no less than the ability to have them be equivalent to horses," says Moore, citing progress in current UAV research. "I mean, you can get on a horse, and if something happens to you, it's still going to keep plodding along and take you to the next town."
Keeping pace with changes in avionics will be changes in the rest of the machine, including simple aerodynamic efficiency. MacCready sees enormous potential for improvement of small aircraft. "I've been amazed and delighted to see nature showing what can be done for small airplanes. If you look at the birds, you find that they can get by without any energy. An albatross soars over the ocean when the wind is more than 10 miles per hour—swooping, zooming, swooping—without flapping its wings, and could go continuously for days." This is the model that has guided aircraft designers since before the Wrights took to the air in 1903, but materials, design and control systems have been too primitive to realize the dream. Aircraft designers will exploit, among other things, ducted-fan technology for more efficient propulsion, and box-wing configurations that further improve performance.
There is bad news, however, for seven decades of dreamers, hustlers and homebuilders who have preached that the vertical-takeoff personal flying machine is just around the next cloud. Hovering air cars (as opposed to airport-based, commercially operated air taxis, which may be VTOL) are impractical, Rutan and Moore argue: too much noise and turbulence for the cul-de-sac. Personal VTOL machines would lack a helicopter's emergency autorotation capability and wouldn't glide. Your neighbor's hovering air car would drop like a stone into your patio party when his engines failed, regardless of how smart the technology was that helped it fly when all systems were go. All the air-car noodling, which has received considerable play in Popular Science since the 1920s, simply doesn't have enough R&D behind it. "The people who have been trying to do this for the last 70 years haven't had the facilities, expertise or funding to really do it right," says Moore, whose vision includes a short-runway, easy-to-manufacture personal aircraft powered by the reliable and inexpensive Corvette LS1 engine. "They
have not been performing systems studies of the
technologies. They've been putting stuff together in their garages and trying to pull it off. Well, that's a chaotic way to try to do research."
MacCready pauses the conversation to emphasize that aviation must also move toward a more environmentally and socially responsible position in the world. He challenges the silent assumption that fossil fuels will continue to power future aircraft. "We're going to find that the amount of fossil fuels being burned is having genuine, deleterious effects on Earth's atmosphere. . . . Fifty years from now, even airplanes, which make the best possible use of fossil fuel, may not have any to use at all."
GE's Benzakein predicts that the problem will begin to be addressed by the integration of fuel cells, first in aircraft auxiliary power units, then as the primary power sources for small aircraft, and finally in large-aircraft power systems. "They're here to stay," he says. "But they're heavy, and we need to make them lighter. I think they'll be hydrogen-fueled, and they will take care of all the pollution issues we have."
HEAVY IRON: A RADICAL NEW SHAPE
What will the large airplanes, the so-called
heavy iron, look like? Airbus's Brown sees no diversion from the wing-and-tube design favored for airliners in the past century, though new aerodynamic features and engine designs will continue to wring more efficiency out of each passenger mile. The juicy improvements, Brown says, will occur inside the airplane: "The aircraft will be so big that the opportunity will be taken not just to pack the thing absolutely full of seats but really to try and make the flight a little bit more of a tolerable and survivable experience by using the space for unconventional things, allowing
passengers to socialize a little bit, to relax. Maybe people dismiss it as a dream today, but I think we may see some exercise facilities, duty-free shops, libraries. I don't go quite as far as casinos and swimming pools, but some sort of [recreation] space there." This, of course, echoes the predictions that Boeing made when it hyped the go-go lounges on the top deck of the 747 in the '60s; those dream spaces were quickly replaced by first- or business-class seats. But Airbus points out that the full-length double-deck design of the A380 produces such a vast increase in usable space that exercise rooms or offices may be available after the need for passenger volume has been satisfied.
Boeing's Muellner imagines a far more radical aircraft: Engineers will finally embrace blended-wing-body (BWB) design. Imagine a giant,
double-decker flying triangle, engines incorporated into the back of the aircraft, with passengers sitting in an enormous space dozens of rows wide. The concept is decades old, and one version appeared on the cover of
Popular Science in 1995. The wide, aerodynamic fuselage is just as safe as tube-and-wing, Muellner says, and more efficient. "I've been trying to push blended-wing-bodies for the four-plus years I've been with Boeing," Muellner says. "I have to tell you, I don't get a positive response from my Seattle community. [But] we go out and do passenger acceptance tests, and nobody [objects]. We do emergency evac tests and it turns out you can actually evacuate it faster than you can a tube. But at Boeing—and I don't know about Airbus, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the same thing—we have a tube-and-wing mentality."
YOUR AIRPLANE WILL FLY HIGHER, FASTER
A week before the roundtable, Air france and British Airways announced their plans to halt Concorde service, grounding the only supersonic commercial aircraft. To Brown, that signaled the end of supersonic civilian flight. "There was a period in my life when I used that airplane a lot," he says, "and it was an unconfined joy to leave Toulouse at half past 6 in the morning, take a Concorde connection out of Paris Charles de Gaulle, and get in to our office in Manhattan before the guys who were commuting in from Connecticut. But that's rather childish, and it ignores the enormous cost involved. We have seen the flying boats go and I rather fear that when Concorde stops this year, we are going to see the supersonic go. And it's very, very difficult to see it coming back."
Propulsion expert Benzakein, however, remains bullish on the prospects of supersonic commercial travel in the coming decades, particularly in smaller aircraft than Concorde. "High-speed flight, whether it's at Mach 2 or Mach 4 or 5, will occur," Benzakein says, citing coming advancements in pulse-detonation engines and other sources of efficient high-speed power. "It might start with the supersonic business jet first. There's a market out there that says we can take people from Point A to Point B in half the time that we're taking [them] today."
Crucial to development of small supersonic aircraft are aerodynamic and noise-control advances, which will suppress the boom and make supersonic flight feasible over land. (Significant progress occurred in late August when Northrop Grumman flew a heavily modified F-5E that
successfully reduced the boom.) This will vastly increase the demand for supersonic aircraft among billionaire entrepreneurs and mega-corporations; both will want them for prestige and efficiency. With a viable commercial supersonic industry in place, an airliner could follow in another 20 years, Benzakein predicts. Growth of the Asian market will prime the pump, with trans-Pacific flights ideal for these aircraft.
Rutan disagrees. "How many people really need that advantage? It's too small to bother." Instead Rutan believes aircraft will leapfrog over supersonic flight to hypersonic, suborbital travel. Diamandis, whose X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first group that can successfully prove the concept, offers a similar argument. "People ask, 'How can you have suborbital flight when the Concorde was such a failure?' It's like asking why we don't have boats that travel at 1,000 mph. Well, you'd rather get up out of the water and into the thinner air to travel 1,000 mph. And you'd like to get out of the air and get into the vacuum of space to travel at high speeds."
The challenge will be to make suborbital spaceflight economical. Rutan, who is considered one of few among
nearly two dozen X Prize competitors to have a viable program, insists that a low-cost, high-risk ethic must prevail during what he predicts will be a boom in aviation development akin to that of 1909 to 1912, when an explosion of experimentation turned the Wright brothers' invention into the foundation for an industry. For suborbital flight to go critical, Rutan says, a similar boom must happen now—and he calls it the next revolution in aviation design.
"People will eventually realize the correct approach to do a mission is to absolutely use the lowest technology that will do the mission, instead of the highest level of technology, such as in the manned space program," Rutan says. "That is exactly how it's been done, and that's why we have something that's so expensive to fly we can't afford it."
Diamandis insists the X Prize can be a platform from which to launch Rutan's suborbital boom. "We have 24 teams now that are vying for the X Prize," Diamandis says. "Some of them are literally building with spare parts and only a few million dollars. Now, they may or may not succeed on that, but it shows the diversity of approaches from the nontraditional players."
But why is the next revolution in flight—Earth to space and back, routinely, commercially—being left in the hands of amateurs and entrepreneurs while the big-money aerospace companies look on? "Years ago," Diamandis says, "I asked panelists at a conference—Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing and so forth—when they would build a suborbital spaceship. And the answer was 'When we have enough orders from the industry to pay for it. We don't take risks on designing new vehicles. The government pays for it, or American and United and Delta.'
"The real thing here is the cash flow," Diamandis insists. "When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, there was a perceivable spike in aviation stocks, and the number of pilots flying passengers tripled within a year of Lindbergh's flight. There's a market study that estimates the marketplace within 10 years at 15,000 people buying suborbital flights at $50,000 a seat. That's a real market. The most valuable thing that will come out of the X Prize competition hopefully is operational experience and reusable subsystems."
WILL YOU FLY WITH A ROBOT?
Military needs have long driven the pace of change in aviation. Jet engines showed up in fighters first. GPS navigation guided military pilots a decade before the public could benefit. Nothing is likely to change in the coming decades. The most advanced materials, including new composites and laminates, will lighten and strengthen military aircraft first, and hypersonic jet engines—
ramjets or scramjets—will propel long-range bombers or missiles before pushing planeloads of passengers into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. First-strike capabilities will be astonishing—aircraft launched to anywhere in the world within 90 minutes. Information technology will connect combatants in remarkable ways that civilian pilots and passengers will have to wait for; perhaps combat, not porn, will drive true VR.
According to Muellner, range will be the key to 21st-
century military aviation. Enormous wing-in-ground-effect aircraft, far larger than anything flown in the 20th century, will allow the military to "lay down" millions of pounds of equipment half a world away in a matter of days instead of weeks. Attack and surveillance craft—which will in their next generations reach the useful upper limits of stealth technology and speed—will focus on achieving the performance efficiency that will allow them to loiter in a strike zone far longer than they can today.
All these advances—in addition to anti-missile technologies that are barely beginning to be transferred to civilian aircraft—will trickle down to commercial applications. But the most significant technology transfer may happen in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles, the best known of which are Predator and Global Hawk. Currently the near-exclusive domain of the military, UAVs offer considerable promise for everything from communication and environmental monitoring to quick, automated package delivery. "We may find it's a lot easier and cheaper to move materials around cities, between cities, over forests without building roads through them," says MacCready, who predicts a wave of electrically powered ultralight UAVs, "by using simple transport devices that don't use people but do use the effectiveness of the air."
Rutan, despite his optimism about synthetic vision as an aid for human pilots, challenges the ubiquitous-UAV vision, particularly if the endgame is unpiloted vehicles carrying human cargo. He cites a high accident rate in the military's UAV programs. "I believe until you have some paradigm shift on how UAVs deal with problems and some paradigm shift on how the systems work, UAVs are always going to have a horrible safety record compared with manned airplanes."
Rutan isn't swayed. "It's very easy to write the equations for an L-1011 to come down and make a landing," he says, "but it's not so easy to write the equations that work every time when you have a gusting crosswind, and that decide, 'Hey, this doesn't feel right, I'm going to go around instead of continue the landing.' Here's the big problem: You put billions into an unmanned program and the first time one crashes into the Rose Bowl, you're out of business.
"Are you comfortable," Rutan asks Muellner, "flying an airliner that's unpiloted with today's level of technology?"
"I would with the level of technology that's available," Mueller replies, "not necessarily what's being bought and put in airplanes today. But the technology is here today."
WILL THE U.S. LOSE ITS AVIATION EDGE?
A hundred years after the invention of an epochal technology, one associated as much as any other with values of freedom, the magnificence of engineering and the power of invention, the airplane's future is clouded. "However much all of us here are in love with aviation," says Airbus's Brown, "the airplane itself is widely perceived as an unfriendly, socially irresponsible, inefficient plaything for the rich, and heaven and earth should be moved to tax airplane operations out of existence, block new runway development, stop demand for air travel from growing."
Meanwhile, the large network of small airports that will be essential to an air taxi system is endangered. Battles are lost to developers, local governments and residents. Airports close. "The perception," says NASA's Moore, "is that these small aircraft have no benefit to them, so of course they want to get rid of them. They're noisy, they're bad neighbors. So until people see a positive purpose for these aircraft, they're going to regulate them right out of existence."
Even more worrisome, everyone agrees, is this: A hundred years after the Wright brothers, the romance has gone out of aviation. The sense of adventure that persisted from the Wright era to the Right Stuff era also drove the senior roundtable members—the Rutans and MacCreadys and Muellners—in their careers. But these men are not sure brilliant young engineers even consider going into aerospace anymore. "Unless we find some way to create excitement, to get the youth thinking about this domain," says Muellner, "I think some of these predictions we have made may [be wrong] simply because there won't be the necessary skill sets to execute them." Diamandis: "The people who put us on the Moon were in their mid-20s! The same thing happened with the Internet. Everybody went to the coolest jobs around. They went where the vision was, where they could create it for themselves."
As a much younger man, Burt Rutan flew across the country to experience the 747 when it debuted almost 35 years ago. It's not clear that any airplane in development now would get him to make a similar flight today. There is, however, an airport that he would fly far to experience, truly the oddest concept advanced at the roundtable: a plan to eliminate land-hogging runways by building vertical structures to act as catcher-launchers for small aircraft.
Rutan shares back-of-envelope sketches and rough calculations: "You have this circle, and you fly into it at above the stall speed. You decelerate in about 280 feet, which is comfortable—it's not abrupt, it's kind of fun. That [deceleration] energy goes into this facility and is then used to launch the next guy. And you can go out from any angle, unless the winds are strong and then you go vertically. You don't slow down to decelerate on a runway and then taxi and find a terminal: You go in at flight speed and two and one-half seconds later you're stopped."
In other words, a carrier-style landing and launch for the air taxi traveler of 2053. Rutan insists how much fun it would be—this from a man who ran test-pilot programs.
It's a good way to end a day of prediction among these clear-eyed types—with a little of the old-style futurism,
a reminder that flying has always been about engineering in the service of something dreamy, something fantastic. Something that, on December 17, 1903, on a sandy beach in North Carolina, actually happened.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.